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A Simmelian approach to space in world politics



Assumptions regarding space and spatiality exist in all major theoretical traditions in international relations, from realism to constructivism, but the mutual constitution of space and social interaction in the study of world politics requires further conceptual development in its own right. This article suggests a preliminary research agenda for the study of space and social relations in IR by lending insight from Georg Simmel’s classical sociology of space. Simmel’s approach offers scholars of contemporary world politics an innovative conceptualization of the relations between physical and symbolic space (‘the physical-symbolic axis’) and between space and time (‘the spatio-temporal axis’); and a set of practical analytical tools to apply in IR research by defining the foundational qualities of space (exclusivity, divisibility, containment, positioning, and mobility) and suggesting a typology of distinct sociospatial formations: organized space, governed space, fixed space, and empty space. The article discusses the potential of Simmel’s nuanced relational approach to contribute to the contemporary study of world politics, and demonstrates its utility in two particular areas of research: the study of unbundled sovereignty and mobility in late modernity; and the study of empty spaces in IR.
International Theory (2018), 10:2, 219252
Cambridge University Press, 2018
A Simmelian approach to space in
world politics
Martin Buber Society of Fellows, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel
Assumptions regarding space and spatiality exist in all major theoretical traditions in
international relations, from realism to constructivism, but the mutual constitution of
space and social interaction in the study of world politics requires further conceptual
development in its own right. This article suggests a preliminary research agenda for
the study of space and social relations in IR by lending insight from Georg Simmels
classical sociology of space. Simmels approach offers scholars of contemporary world
politics an innovative conceptualization of the relations between physical and
symbolic space (the physical-symbolic axis) and between space and time (the spatio-
temporal axis); and a set of practical analytical tools to apply in IR research by
dening the foundational qualities of space (exclusivity, divisibility, containment,
positioning, and mobility) and suggesting a typology of distinct sociospatial
formations: organized space, governed space, xed space, and empty space. The article
discusses the potential of Simmels nuanced relational approach to contribute to the
contemporary study of world politics, and demonstrates its utility in two particular
areas of research: the study of unbundled sovereignty and mobility in late modernity;
and the study of empty spaces in IR.
Keywords: Simmel; spatiality; unbundled sovereignty; the stranger;
ontological security; empty space
How are interactions in the international realm whether rooted in rational
power politics or in intersubjective social understandings and practices
anchored and congured in space? And how are these interactions affected
by, and in turn affect, differing spatial congurations? The answers to these
questions may seem marginal compared to the substantial issues that reg-
ularly occupy scholars of international politics, such as the mechanisms of
international security and cooperation, systemic change, or the diffusion of
norms and practices around the globe. But in a discipline whose main object
of inquiry is the globe itself, we cannot in fact fully address such topics
without rst placing the agents that generate these phenomena in their
spatial surroundings and specifying the various ways these settings affect
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their relations and behavior. It is therefore imperative to explicitly spell out
how the relationsbetween space and social interaction are approached in IR,
and to generate a systematic research agenda for the study of how
space shapes and is shaped by social processes and outcomes in the
international system.
As opposed to territoryin the thin sense that is, brute topographical
physical settings and terrestrial landscapes (Kadercan 2015, 12829;
Agnew 2016, 196201) the term spaceis used here to refer to the
broader dynamic webs of socio-cultural and symbolic relations evolving
within, around, and in relation to these settings (Couclelis 1999, 2938;
Jones 2009, 487506).
Following Jessop, Brenner, and Jones (2008), I use
this broad conception of space in order to focus particularly on the
theorization of sociospatial relations in IR. Critical studies in neighboring
disciplines like political geography widely acknowledge the pivotal role of
space in shaping social and political encounters (Newman 1998; Ó Tuathail
2000, 16678; Agnew and Corbridge 2002, 116). However, although the
study of territory and the effects of the broader environment on interna-
tional politics has advanced considerably in recent years (see, e.g. Hassner
2009; Elden 2013; Starr 2013; Banai et al. 2014; Branch 2014, 2016), the
linkage between space and social interaction requires further explication
and conceptual development in its own right.
Though one may suggest several hypothesis as to why IR theory has
historically tended to take the sociospatial dimension of world politics for
this is a separate, albeit no less signicant, question. Instead, I
take this tendency as a given intellectual reality, and, focusing not on space
in general but rather on the more conned question of the mutual relations
between space and social encounters, I suggest approaching this challenge
by turning to Georg Simmels classical sociology of space. Simmel was
one of the rst modern sociologists to explicitly address the social power
of space in both its physical-geometric and its metaphoric-symbolic
dimensions, stressing the continuous evolution of social encounters not
only in space but also in time. Rather than remaining strictly in the abstract
sphere, however, his spatial approach is articulated through two useful
These terms differ from spatiality’–the effect of location and spatial setting upon social,
political, and economic processes (Agnew and Corbridge 2002, 7980); and territoriality,
which refers to the human purposeful delimitation of boundaries and political control over a
geographic area (Sack 1986; Kahler 2006).
Such as the evolution of the discipline as an American policy-oriented eld of study; the lack
of relevant data; or the inuence of the Parsonian systemic perspective on IR theory. See Weber
(2015, 123).
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The rst typology refers to the ve foundational qualities of space:
exclusivity, divisibility, containment, positioning, and mobility. Simmels
notion of exclusivity pertains to the uniqueness of space, in that no portion
of space is ever identical to another. Divisibility, from a Simmelian per-
refers to the social implications of the human tendency to divide
space into units surrounded by boundaries. Containment pertains to the
ways social formations are settled within particular spatial settings.
Positioning refers to how the spatial continuum, which spans from nearness
to distance, affects social relations. And the nal foundational quality of
space is mobility the social effects of the movement of people in and across
spaces when the spatial constraints on their existence are put into ux
(Simmel 2009, 545605; see also Škorić,Kišjuhas, and Škorić2013).
Simmels second, and complementary, typology refers to his four ideal
types of distinct spatial formations: organized space (i.e. the connection
between how a social group is organized in space and its type of social
bond); governed space (i.e. how the exercise of governance over people
ows into particular spatial expressions); xed space (i.e. the unique
qualities of social associations that are housedin particular spatial
settings); and empty space (i.e. a spectrum of different types of emptiness
that are manifested in diverse kinds of sociospatial relations) (Simmel 2009,
60520; see also Borden 1997).
These typologies, which encapsulate Simmels general relational approach
to space, enable us to practically apply his approach in specic areas of study
in IR. Thus, while some contemporary IR scholars may dismiss Simmels
classical spatial sociology as anachronistic or simplistic compared to recent
scholarly advancements in the eld of spatiality, I suggest that his relational
and dynamic approach, with its mid-range generalizations and concrete
empirical illustrations, is simple and accessible yet at the same time rich in
detail and sophisticated in dialectical nuance and may therefore prove to be
highly effective when applied to current international settings.
Divisibilityfor Simmel refers to the preliminary cognitive human tendency to connect that
which is separated and separate that which is perceived to be connected, and to the social
implications that derive from this tendency. This notion is further developed in Simmels
(1994 [1909]) Bridge and Door’–although as Michael Kaern (1994, 399) stresses, despite this
premise Simmel is not to be seen as a Neo-Kantian given his emphasis on the nonrational elements
of social life (see also Kemple 2007). This Simmelian notion of divisibilitythus differs from the
way this concept is commonly approached in IR: either as part of the territory and warliterature
regarding the perception of a territory as indivisible in protracted conicts (see Toft 2003), or as
the divisibility of benetswithin the international cooperation and security dilemmaliterature
(see Cerny 2000).
Simmels (2009, 55761) interesting notion of space as a pivot around which social relations
spin is explained in this context.
A Simmelian approach to space in world politics 221
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By focusing on one aspect of Simmelian thought I also highlight the
broader potential contribution of Simmels work to the contemporary
study of world politics. The intellectual breadth of Simmels immense body
of work ranges from such topics as the money economy, urbanism,
migration, ecology, conict, cooperation, and social networks to the
effects of modernity on individual and collective experience (Simmel 1950,
2004, 2009; Levine, Carter, and Gorman 1976), all of which are highly
relevant to the study of international politics. Despite this, Simmels
scholarly contributions have rarely been incorporated into studies in IR, a
fact all the more puzzling in light of the growing interest within the
discipline in later thinkers like Foucault, Bourdieu, Gramsci, and Derrida as
part of the social turn in IR theory (Cox 1983; Löwenheim 2008; Adler
2013; Adler-Nissen 2013).
Several contemporary theoretical perspectives in IR were indeed broadly
inuenced by Simmelian notions, especially relational approaches and
various brands of network theory (Jackson and Nexon 1999; Hafner-
Burton, Kahler, and Montgomery 2009). Some IR scholars are also familiar
with the works of Lewis Coser (1956), who adapted and interpreted a
signicant portion of Simmels work on conict and inter-group relations.
Yet, most IR scholars are far less familiar with Simmel in the original. One
notable exception is a study published more than a decade ago by
Cederman and Daase (2003), who extended the constructivist approach
to include a new sociationalbrand based on Simmels concept of
Despite its originality, their research has not been
followed by similar scholarly endeavors.
I pick up on this effort to apply
Simmels approach to international politics by focusing on a relatively
narrow slice of his overall intellectual legacy his sociology of space with
the aim of demonstrating the larger potential of his abundant body of work
to enrich contemporary theoretical discourse in IR.
The article is organized in three sections. I begin by briey addressing the
gap between IR and political geography in their treatment of the socio-
spatial nexus. Relying on John Agnews (1994) still relevant critique on the
territorial trap, as well as on more recent scholarly contributions,
I articulate the problem as pertaining to the underspecied treatment of the
relations between space and social interaction in IR theory, particularly
The term Vergesellschaftung was translated by Wolff (Simmel 1950, xiii) as sociation, but
has several interchangeable meanings (see Simmel 2009, xv). In the most foundational sense, it
refers to the relational process in which social forms are constituted via continuous social
interaction among realagents (Simmel 1950, 9; Frisby 1984, 4750).
Cederman and Daase focused particularly on the endogenization of corporate identities in
IR theory.
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regarding the question of how the actorsposition in space affects their
predispositions. In the second section, I present the basic elements of
Simmels sociology of space as a possible way to approach this challenge,
explaining the relevance of his approach to the study of international
politics. The nal section demonstrates the practical utility of Simmels
analytical scales for IR in two particular areas of study unbundled
sovereignty and mobility in late modernity from an ontological security
(OS) perspective; and empty spaces in IR.
The sociospatial nexus in IR theory
IR vs. political geography: a trailing discipline
For most of the 20thcentury, the discussion of space and spatiality within IR
was restricted almost exclusively to the inexhaustible debate over the
persistence vs. the disappearance of the territorial state as the principle form
of political organization in the Westphalian system, a debate that dates back
to Herzs (1957) classical text on the subject. While the spatial dimension
remained undertheorized in IR during this period (Banaiet al. 2014, 99), the
neighboring eld of political geography has adeptly advanced geopolitics as
a comprehensive framework for analyzing space and foreign policy. This
approach has evolved from an essentialist view that the statesgeographical
settings determine its destiny (Mackinder 1904; Kearns 2008, 1599601) to
a critical and self-conscious perspective acknowledging the latent power
structures behind the discursive practices of geopolitical specialists and
intellectuals of statecraft
(Newman 1989; Ó Tuathail 1996).
Since the end of the Cold War, geopolitics has grown into a broader
critique of the Westernway of reasoning, its political discourses, and its
logics of foreign policy (Bassin 2004; Dalby 2010).
Additionally, within
the burgeoning political and human geography literature, scholars like
Colin Flint have expanded the traditional geographical notions of space
and conict to include relational theories of power and social networks
(Flint et al. 2009), while Stuart Elden (2009, xviii) developed Henri
Lefebvres ([1970] 2009, 16784) assertion that space is political in and of
itself to study key strategic issues like the war on terror, and also addressed
A myriad of state bureaucrats, foreign policy experts, and leaders who comment upon,
inuence and conduct the activities of statecraft. See Ó Tuathail and Agnew (1992, 193).
Several sociospatial turnsfacilitated this transformation in geopolitics the acknowl-
edgment that territory is unboundsolely to the limits of the nation state in the 1980s; the
introduction of the more contentious notion of geographical scalein the 1990s; and the shift
toward interconnectedness through the geographies of networksthereafter (Jessop, Brenner,
and Jones 2008, 390).
A Simmelian approach to space in world politics 223
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the broader historical, philosophical, and political evolution of the modern
concept of territory (Elden 2013). Other prominent political geographers,
such as David Newman (2006), have pushed the limits of this eld further
by focusing on the study of borders and boundaries, critically tying together
the concepts of territory, power, and national identity. For example, Anssi
Paasi (1999), using as illustration the changing meanings attributed to the
FinishRussian border over time, conceives boundaries as ongoing social
processes in the making, expressing themselves simultaneously in diverse
practices and discourses on a local, state, and global scale. These studies are
complemented by inquiries into the philosophical aspects of spatiality,
which focus on ontological laws relating to geographical concepts such as
surface and connectedness (e.g. Smith 1996).
Political geography has hence incrementally evolved into a eld that offers a
new language to think about the social and political dimensions of spatiality.
In IR, however, the analysis of space as an autonomous inuence on the
international system only gradually began to evolve in the 1980s. Richard
Ashleys (1987) pioneering work on geopolitical space was later joined by
R.B.J. Walkers (1993) re-evaluation of the nonreexiveuseoftheinside/
outside divide, and by John Ruggies (1993) conception of unbundled terri-
torialityas a new framework for understanding postmodern spaces.
Furthermore, Harvey Starrs (1978, 2013) scholarly effort which dates back
to his opportunity and willingnessframework at the end of the 1970s
has evolved thereafter into a geopolitical approach to conict and inter-
national politics has continuously unpacked the signicance of space in IR
not only in the locational sense but also in its symbolic and perceptual prop-
erties. These studies have all signicantly contributed to turning the spotlight
on the spatial dimension of international politics. Nonetheless, at this point
the overall gap between IR and political geography in terms of the variety and
richness of the analytical tools they offer for the study of sociospatial relations
was already highly evident and difcult to bridge.
The territorial trapand the sociospatial nexus
A particularly salient contribution to the growing attention given to the
spatial dimension of IR was John Agnews (1994) critical plea to re-evaluate
the misrepresentation of territory in IR theory, which he framed as the
territorial trap: that is, the common view of the international system as
comprising a set of statist building blocks with well-dened territorial
Starrs concept of opportunityas the environment in which the agents function includes the
spatial context but also possibilities, probabilities, and constraints, and thus has a strong per-
ceptional and constructionist emphasis to it.
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boundaries. This view, evident in the works of neo-realists and neo-liberals
alike, led to the reication of the state as a xed unit of sovereign space and
to the production of research based on the articial hermetic separation
between internal and foreign affairs.
Agnew saw evidence of this unrealistic notion of society as bound solely to the
territorial limits of the nation state not only in the neorealist and neoliberal
traditions, but also in the critical and supposedly more geographically conscious
structural perspectives of Wallersteins Modern World System approach and the
sociological dependency theory. Although these approaches acknowledge the
interconnectedness of territorial and social factors via their socio-economic
geographical distinction between coreand peripherystates, they still funda-
mentally perceive geography as a body of xed facts, setting the environment
for the action of territorial states that are essentially the same today as two
hundred years ago, as much so in Africa as in Europe(Agnew 1994, 56).
Although Agnews critique is widely used to legitimate studies that
attempt to transcend the state-centric view of territory in IR (see, e.g. Atzili
and Kantel 2015), it in effect goes far beyond the discussion of the
territorial trapper se. It, in fact, points to a dehistoricized and decontex-
tualized representation of space in its broader meanings in IR theory, and to
a sweeping neglect of an explicit discussion of the meanings, roles, and
effects of space on phenomena in the international sphere in the disciplines
major research scholarship and theoretical repertoire.
Conceptualizing sociospatial relations in contemporary IR
Several substantial scholarly advancements in this eld have been made in
IR since Agnews critique. One of the rst attempts to deal directly with this
topic was the volume Identities, Borders, Orders by Albert, Jacobson, and
Lapid (1999). Within the context of rapid democratization and liberal-
ization processes and old-new ethno-national identities that surfaced at the
In a paraphrase on Kant, Larkins (2010, 2) conceptualizes this essentialist view as the
territorial a prioriin IR, which is in turn based on the Westphalian myth’–the well-known
depiction of the international system as comprised of separate, recognizable, sovereign states
engaging with each other within an anarchical territorial order since 1648.
Later theoretical contributions take sociospatial relations more seriously. Wendts (1999,
11011) moderate constructivism, for example, indirectly offers a space-as-framemetaphor,
suggesting that brute material forcesdene for all actors the outer limits of feasible activity,
while on the ontological level a wide range of constructivists engage with the question of
spatiality when analyzing diverse postmodern spatial congurations within and beyond the
nation state (Kratochwil 1986; Reus-Smit 2001; Ruggie 2004). The more recent practice turn
(Adler and Pouliot 2011, 3), with its pragmatic emphasis on competent performances, holds
further potential to bring the sociospatial dimension into IR, pending a detailed account of how
spatial settings shape these patterned competent performances.
A Simmelian approach to space in world politics 225
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end of the 1990s, this volume was part of a wider intellectual effort to
engage with poststructural and critical theory in addressing the entangled
relations between territory, sovereignty, and boundaries (see also Albert
1998). Other signicant contributions were made later along this vein by
symposiums and edited collections that engaged directly with the questions
raised in Agnews critique and that conceptualized changing notions of
territoriality within and beyond the state (see, e.g. Ferguson and Jones
2002; Banai et al. 2014).
A second salient contribution to this eld is Jordan Branchs (2013)
innovative study on territorial boundaries and cartography. Branch
demonstrates the crucial role cartographers played in constructing the
modern notion of sovereignty as attached exclusively to a particular
physical territory through the practice of mapping and demarcating the
concrete and, more importantly, conceptual lines of modern polities.
Together with Jeremy Larkins(2010, 1315) in-depth study on the evo-
lution of the territorial imaginaryof the state, these works are part of a
broader effort to delve deeper into the socio-historical evolution of the idea
(s) of territoriality and sovereignty in world politics.
A third and no less signicant development in this eld stems from
feminist critical theory (Sjoberg 2013; Enloe 2014) and relates to its
distinction between public and private spaces. According to Cynthia Enloe
(2004, 29596), adopting a feminist lens on the aftermath of war means
that what is often popularly considered as private feminized space, such as a
beauty salon in Baghdad, is no less a political space where the relations
between public and private power are being sorted outand the implica-
tions of sexual violence for enacting effective citizenship are being exposed.
More broadly, Enloe, as well as Sjoberg and Gentry (2007, 200) and others,
address what they see as the masculinized, patriarchal distinction between
public and private spaces as part of their fundamental argument that the
overall relationship between public and private, the international and the
personal, in world politics is much more blurred and hybridized than it is
often conceived to be in mainstream international political theory.
(As Sjoberg and Gentry put it, IR is about everything from a Campbells
soup can to a nuclear bomb.)
The fourth major development in this eld originates from the rapidly
growing literature on territory and war in IR (Miodownik and Cartrite
2006; Vasquez and Henehan 2011; Toft 2014). Relying on the Correlates
Branch (2016) also addresses broader conceptual questions pertaining to boundaries and
territorial shape, like the background assumptions attached to concepts such as the contiguity
and compactnessof territory that often uncritically serve as the basis for the empirical and
normative assessment of territorial claims.
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of War as well as on other more specic data sets,
these works examine
the effects of various territory-related variables on conict. They are hence
concerned with such questions as how contested territory and interstate
rivalries interact to make the use of force more probable (Rasler and
Thompson 2006, 146); how territorial changes affect international conict
(Lustick 1993; Kacowicz 1994; Tir et al. 1998; Goddard 2010; Atzili and
Kantel 2015, 8993); and why conict over the homeland is distinct from
conict over other kinds of territories (Shelef 2016, 35).
Lake and OMahony (2006, 133), for example, map the relations
between average state size and interstate wars, while other studies shift the
focus to intrastate conicts and civil wars, offering a theory of territory and
conict that consists of perceptual variables beyond brute physical terri-
tory. Toft (2003, 1314), for example, studies the indivisibility of territory
to explain ethnic violence, and suggests that if both the state and the ethnic
group regard a particular territory as indivisible, and an ethnic group
demands independence, then violence is likely to occur. Alternatively,
Goddard (2010, 4) demonstrates how politicians utilize legitimation
strategiesas rhetorical devices that may have unexpected consequences,
trapping the actors who negotiate an intractable conict by socially
constructing a territory as indivisible.
By measuring the relations between an array of territory-related vari-
ables, on the one hand, and the probability, incentives, duration, intensity,
and peaceful resolution of conict, on the other, this vast territory and war
literature undeniably furthers our understanding of the peculiar features of
territory and their effects on world politics. Some of these studies go
further and directly refer to the symbolic value of territory and to the ways
territory is perceived and politically negotiated inside and beyond the state
(see Lustick 1993; Toft 2003; Hassner 2009; Goddard 2010; Atzili and
Kantel 2015). However, their empirical focus on particular territorial
variables such as state size, and even on the perception of territory as
indivisible, still requires an upfront engagement with the fundamental
preliminary question of how the actorsposition in space affects their
predispositions: that is, the ways by which these particular actors under-
stand, interpret, and experience themselves, the world, and each other in the
rst place. This has far-reaching effects on their actions and interactions in
any given conict.
This point was obliquely made nearly a decade ago within the territory
and war literature in a debate in International Security on time and
the intractability of territorial disputes (Goddard, Pressman, and
Such as the Minorities at Risk project (see, e.g. Toft 2003).
A Simmelian approach to space in world politics 227
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Hassner 2008, 19192), when, in her still relevant critique, Goddard argued
that one cannot overlook the actorsinitial perceptionsas affecting the
disputes entrenchment. More broadly put, we can study an array of well-
dened territory-related variables such as the strategic intrinsic worth of
territory (Carter 2010); triadic deterrence
(Atzili and Pearlman 2012);
commitment and information problems (Fearon 1995); and statesconcerns
of precedent-setting and reputation (Toft 2003, 2014; Walter 2009), but
these cannot sufce in themselves. In the end, it is the actorspredispositions,
shaped in relation to their initial position inspace, that trigger these dynamics
in the rst place, and make territorial disputes erupt, persist, and, in some
cases, dissolve.
Simmels sociology enables us to address precisely these predispositions.
How does the position of social actors in space affect their intentions, their
ability to voluntarily act within the international system, and their
encounters with each other within this system? Is space a structural element
that shapes and shovesthe actors, limiting the range of their possible
actions and interactions, and if so, in what ways? Due to the relative
disregard of these questions in the bulk of IR research, we are currently at a
stage where we must take one step back in order to clarify their answers, as
a preliminary move that will enable us to more adequately and maturely
embrace poststructural critical notions of spatiality and power (Ó Tuathail
1996). In this respect, Simmels sociology serves to complement critical
geopolitics rather than to contradict it.
Simmels sociology of social forms
In order to make the case for a Simmelian sociology of space in IR, Simmels
concept of space must rst be understood as an integral part of his broader
sociological approach. Much different from Durkheims image of society as
a sui generis abstract construct, Simmel perceives society as the sum of
ongoing daily interactions (Frisby 1992, 14; Simmel 2009, 22) among esh
and blood social actors.
Simmelian social reality is thus experienced
through and embodied in relations (Simmel 2009, 33; Pietila 2011, 173).
Put differently, analogous to Max Webers illustration of human beings
When a state uses threats and/or punishments against another state to coerce it to prevent
nonstate actors from conducting attacks from its territory.
These actors are agents acting upon the world through subjective mental constructs, but
Simmel sharply diverges from Kantian philosophy in his interest in how society as such is made
possible, rather than in how knowledge of society is possible. Instead of a transcendental sub-
ject, he presupposes empirical subjects embedded in actual social interaction (Frisby 2013, 64;
Helle 2013, 1).
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continuously spinning webs of meaning, the Simmelian image of society
entails individual actors constantly spinning webs of interaction(Helle
2009, 4). Simmel then proceeds to categorize these open-ended interactions
as the basis for the process of sociation (Vergesellschaftung). This process
includes countless social encounters. It continuously emerges and ceases
and emerges again, serving as the binding force that links individuals
together, and prevents society from breaking up into its discontinuous
elements (Simmel 1950, 910). Although this is a dynamic ongoing process,
in diverse types of societies we would expect to nd similar forms of
sociation, such as subordination, domination, competition, division of
labor, marriage, and family (Simmel 2009, 24), and sociology as a
discipline entails the study of this process (Frisby 1992, 12).
From this it follows that in Simmels thinking sociology is not a eld of
study but rather a method.
This method with the process of sociation as
its object of inquiry approaches this object by differentiating form from
By content Simmel refers to all that drives an actor to interact
with others in the rst place: impulses, interests, motivations, and psycho-
logical conditions such as love, hunger, lack of material resources, and
religiosity, which partially overlap with the notions of incentivesand
material capabilitiesin IR. All of these serve, according to Simmel, as the
energies and impulses of life, and their study is beyond the mandate of the
By form he refers to the outcome of these interactions once
they have taken place. These social forms are the object of sociological
inquiry, and they take on a relatively stable external shape. In this sense,
they may be equated to the common notion of international outcomesin
IR and, more broadly, to the notion of social structure, but since they serve
as an ongoing dynamic expression of the content that has driven their
creation in the rst place, they are nonetheless characterized by constant
internal ux (Helle 2009, 45; Simmel 2009, 2223).
The range of social forms in society spans from individuals
specic types of individuals, such as the poor person and the stranger)
to the dyad, the triad, and the small group.
All of these culminate in the
form of formsat the highest level, which is society itself (Helle 2013, 5).
These forms display specic traits that derive from their formal numerical
By method he refers to a systematic way of knowing the worldin the epistemological
Simmels binary distinction between form and content should be understood as a heuristic
tool. See Helle (2013, 23).
In Simmels view these should be studied within such elds as economics or psychology.
The individual is perceived as a social form no less than the dyad or triad.
This includes special types of groups such as the secret society. See Simmel (1950, 34576).
A Simmelian approach to space in world politics 229
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character and geometrical shape,
as well as from their relative position in
time and space. They are thus relational in the sense that they always exist
in relation to other objects in space (Kaern 1990, 87). As history advances
through a process in which these forms are constantly transmuted into
content and the other way around,
the forms of sociation also exhibit by
denition a dialectical, often seemingly opposite, effect on the human
experience of the agents that have created them.
Simmels sociology of space should hence be read as an inseparable part
of his sociology of forms and not as an autonomous theory of spatial
formations. While scholars of Simmels legacy produced profound in-depth
studies of his work (Frisby 1984; Dahme 1990; Levine 1991; Weinstein
and Weinstein 1993; Jaworski 1998; Kemple 2007; Helle 2013), research
that deals specically with his sociology of space is more scarce and
scattered in diverse disciplinary venues (see, e.g. Borden 1997). It is there-
fore important to note here that Simmels spatial sociology has its roots
in some of his well-known essays on modernity and its effects, especially
The Philosophy of Money (Simmel 2004) and The Metropolis and
Mental Life (Simmel 1950, 40926), in which the main space of reference
is the modern European metropolis (Vidler 1991). Yet, the foundational
text for a Simmelian sociology of space is the ninth chapter of his
Soziologie treatise (Simmel 2009) Space and the Spatial Ordering of
which includes his famous Excursus on the Stranger (der
Fremde) as well as the Excursus on the Social Boundary. These are joined
by Simmels (1994) lesser-known but no less signicant short essay Bridge
and Door,
in which he extends his analysis on social boundaries to
include bridges and thresholds in the context of the separateness vs. the
connectedness of space.
Simmels reference to geometry stems from his interest in the shape of the interaction as
determining individual experience rather than as concrete advice that sociology should adopt
formal methods. See Kaern (1990, 86).
For example, the same content (such as government) may appear across time and space in
different forms (democracy, dictatorship), and the same form (such as autocratic leadership) may
shape various contents (family, state, church). See Helle (1997, xiii).
Simmels conception of the relations between social forms and human consciousness
resembles in this sense the later Bourdieusian notion of the mutual constitution of eld and
The fact that this chapter was rst published as a two-part essay in 1903, the same year
SimmelsMetropolis and Mental Life was published, is no coincidence. In 1908 this two-part
essay was incorporated into Soziologie. While selected excerpts of Soziologie were translated into
English by Wolff (Simmel 1950) and others, the full text was translated only in 2009.
This 1909 essay was translated into English by Mark Ritter in 1994. For a different
translation published that same year together with the translators notes see Kaern (1994).
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Simmel meets IR: betweenness as a spatial mode of analysis
Relying directly on this corpus, I now turn to discuss the contribution of
Simmels spatial approach to IR. I begin with his general relational approach
to space, and then move on to demonstrate the practical utility of this
approach by applying his spatial scales in particular areas of study. The rst
crucial point for utilizing Simmels spatial approach in IR is that he does not
see space as a generating explanatory factor in any sense, but rather a
conditio sine qua non. A great kingdom, for example, is not made of a huge
geographical expansion measured in square miles, but of the psychological
powers that work from a governing center to hold the inhabitants of such a
territory together in the political sense (Simmel 2009, 54344). Nonetheless,
we experience social interaction only through the realization of space, which
holds a dual geometric (Euclidian) and symbolic (metaphoric) meaning
(Ethington 1997). Since interaction lls space, which is originally empty and
null, the relationship between two actors occurs immanently between two
points in space, characterized by constant movement or betweenness that
is realized in and through space. Thus, from the very moment social inter-
action is conceived, it is placed in-between rather than xed in one spatial
end or the other (Simmel 2009, 545).
I refer to Simmels conception of social interaction as transforming con-
tinuously in-between two points in space, and thus as relational in the most
foundational sense, as the spatio-temporal axisof his theory. This axis
intersects with a further vital element of his spatial approach the physical-
symbolic axis. For Simmel, social interaction comes into being via its
physical-geometric relative positioning in space; yet once social interaction
has taken place, physical space also remains as a representation of it: a
symbol embodying the social encounter, encapsulating the entangled power
asymmetries that stand at its basis and gaining a life in its own right. This
occurs since space is perceptibly more graphicthan time, giving the place
where an emotionally charged social interaction whether positive or
negative has occurred a strong binding associative power; in this way,
the place remains the pivot around which the memory of the actors then
spins. As interaction is ongoing and reciprocal, this memory also spins the
individualsinto a continuous shared intersubjective experience (Simmel
2009, 561). As Simmel (1950, 402) elucidates regarding the social form of
the stranger, spatial relations are hence both the conditionand the
symbolof human relations.
This symbol is not static, however; as the
spatio-temporal axis of his theory suggests, it continuously evolves in time
via social interaction among esh and blood social agents.
See also The Stranger in Simmel (2009, 601) in the later translation of Soziologie.
A Simmelian approach to space in world politics 231
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Simmels relational spatial approach thus encapsulates two intersecting
analytical axes that of space-time, and that of physical-symbolic space.
This spatial theory therefore offers the existing relational approaches in IR
(Goddard 2009; Hafner-Burton, Kahler, and Montgomery 2009) an
innovative way to overcome the dichotomy between the semiotic and the
materialthat many of them nd difcult to bridge (Nexon and Pouliot
2013, 344) without neglecting the spatio-temporal dimension the premise
that social relations continuously evolve and transform across time and
space that stands at the basis of all relational approaches in IR. Indeed,
Simmels German modernist intellectual origins differ considerably from
the pragmatist-instrumentalist roots of Jackson and Nexons (1999,
292301) processual relationalism (p/r), as well as from other post-
structural relational modes of analysis (Nexon and Pouliot 2013, 342; Selg
2016). Furthermore, historically Simmels spatial sociology predates
network theory and various other relational modes of thought in IR and
in a broader sense enabled these developments by imagining, at the turn of
the 20th century, the possibility of thinking about space in a relative, open-
ended manner. Despite these points, however, I suggest that the signicance
of his ideas for IR today lies in his innovative integration of these two axes
within one holistic theoretical framework, encapsulating the intertwined
relations between physical and symbolic space as they evolve in time
through the agency of the actors, nonetheless acknowledging their struc-
tural constraints (i.e. the uxual, yet binding, force of social forms).
This approach is also of direct relevance to the empirical study of terri-
tory and war. While Rosenau (1966), and later Vasquez (1983) and others
(Diehl and Goertz 1988; Starr 2013), acknowledged the intangible prop-
erties of territory, Toft (2014, 189) argues that the attempt to touch upon
the relational valueof territory when the actors attach some sort of
historical or identity-valueto it remained by and large materially based
and lacked broader theorizing until recently. Recent studies have begun to
systematically unpack these symbolic properties, suggesting that political
agents tend to construct symbolic narratives that affect the partiesclaims to
territory and limit the possibilities of conict resolution (Goddard, Pressman,
and Hassner 2008; Hassner 2009; Goddard 2010; Toft 2014, 187).
Simmels conception of the binding associative power of space
remaining as a symbol of an emotionally charged social interaction in the
memory of the agents long after it has transformed in time thus offers
these studies a powerful sociospatial mechanism upon which to ground
their hypotheses. It not only supports the claim that as interstate conicts on
territory become more entrenched, the symbolic value of territory grows,
but further suggests that despite their emotional baggage, symbolic narra-
tives of territory also inevitably transform in time.
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Without overlooking obvious structural constraints, especially in ethnic
disputes in which individuals ght, live and die in conquered landand
therefore construct myths to legitimate their territorial claims(Goddard,
Pressman, and Hassner 2008, 191), Simmels relational approach to space
renders the possibility of agency and change in entrenched territorial
disputes. As Goddard eloquently argued, this type of premise is more than
academic. It has direct normative implications, since if actors can
reconstruct perceptions then they may be able to redene their links to
specic territory, leaving room for a negotiated settlement(Goddard,
Pressman and Hassner 2008, 193194). Moreover, from a Simmelian
perspective, it is precisely due to the actorspredispositions that these
symbolic narratives of territory hold the potential of transformation.
Simmels theory does not replace existing theories of territory and war that
focus on particular explaining variables (e.g. the construction of territory as
indivisible), but rather shifts our focus to the actorspreliminary socio-
spatial predispositions. Put differently, as powerful and realas the per-
ceptions of a disputed territory may seem in the consciousness of the agents
in a given moment in time, Simmel suggests these perceptions are none-
theless inseparable symbolic expressions of the ongoing, and continuously
changing, social interaction that has created them in the rst place. Hence,
they can never be static or deterministic.
More broadly, I suggest that in the most pragmatic sense, Simmel offers
IR scholars a relational mode of analysis to approach sociospatial relations
within the international system as a formal category anchored in space as
part of the geometry of social life(Ethington 1997). At the same time, his
approach enables us to interpret the inuence of this geometric position
which continuously evolves in time in a nonlinear fashion via social inter-
action on the deep psychological content and symbolic meanings it holds
for the agents, who are the actual generators of this social form. This applies
to relations not only among nation states but also involving international
regimes and nonstate actors such as terror networks, militias, diasporic
communities, ethnic minorities, multinational corporations, transnational
advocacy networks, and civilizations (Hafner-Burton, Kahler, and
Montgomery 2009; Adler 2010; Miodownik and Barak 2013).
That space and time need to be thought of together rather than sepa-
rately, and in a nonlinear fashion, has long been contemplated by later
thinkers like Lefebvre (2004), and acknowledged in IR by critical theorists
such as Cox and Ashley (Hutchings 2007, 76). However, this particular
relational mode of analysis which examines the evolution of the social
bond in accordance with the physical and symbolic spatial organization of
society, transforming not only across space but also in time while shaping
the practical experience of the agents does not exist in IR to this day.
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Unbundled sovereignty and mobility in late modernity: a Simmelian
spatial approach to ontological (in)security
Simmels sociology offers scholars of international politics more than a general
relational approach to sociospatial relations. His tangible spatial scales
another layer to our discussion, since they serve as concrete analytical tools
that encapsulate his general spatial approach, and can be lent to the study of
various phenomena in the international sphere. Let us demonstrate the utility
of these ideal types for one particular area of research: the study of unbundled
forms of sovereignty and mobility in late modernity within the burgeoning OS
literature in IR (Huysmans 1998; Kinnvall 2004; Steele 2017).
Applying Simmels modernist approach to postmodern structures of
and power is not an obvious move and requires particular
caution. I begin with Simmels conception of organized space, which refers to
the connection between how a social group is organized in space and the type
of its social bond. Simmel saw the ancient model of organic solidarity based
on kin relationship as supra-spatial in the sense that it is independent of any
common land, while the modern transition into a mechanical and rational
type of solidarity was historically accompanied by a spatial division.
movement toward mechanical solidarity via the differentiation of economic
production and the adoption of rationalistic goal-oriented thinking was
congruent with the spatial reorganization of local markets, which gradually
converged into modern city centers.
One might argue, then, that this logic
could be extended further to the currentpost-Westphalian era, and applied to
a variety of more vanguard unbundled forms of spatio-social organization in
the contemporary international system.
Yet before taking up this move, it is pertinent to stress that Simmel, quite
similar to Weber and other of his German contemporaries,
saw the pure
rational reasoning typical of the age of modernity as receiving a life of its
own, independent of any spatial limitations.
Ultimately, he perceived
By scaleI refer here to an analytical heuristic tool and not to the concept as utilized in
political geography (see Delaney and Leitner 1997).
Following Hudson (2000, 269), I dene sovereignty here as the principle which gives states
the authority to set the rules for activities which take place within their borders.
For a Durkheimian analysis of a similar process and its application in IR, see Albert, Buzan,
and Zürn (2013).
Although cities as distinguishable spaces predate modernity. For Simmels (1950, 40924)
broader analysis of modern urban spaces see his Metropolis and Mental Life.
See also Martin Bubers (1970) I and Thou.
This common theme of rationality receiving a life of its own resonates Max Webers iron
cage metaphor, as well as other Golem mythnarratives in German literature, philosophy and
sociology. See Yair and Soyer (2008).
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modern organized spaces, such as the metropolis and the nation state, to be
constructed through weak ties of solidarity, enabling the evolution of
Gesellschaft-type nonaffective, utilitarian social relations which remolded
these modern spaces as symbolic reections of their rational character. While
this modernist vision does not mean that we cannot apply Simmels insights to
postmodern settings, it should be done consciously and carefully, coupled
with the clear acknowledgment that despite his relational inclination, Simmel
was rst and foremost a modern rather than postmodern thinker.
Taking this premise back to Simmels spatial typologies, it is here that his
relativistic conception of a key quality of space becomes relevant its exclu-
sivity. For Simmel, the exclusivity of space refers to the notion that within the
one, single universal space, no portion of space is ever identical to another. This
uniqueness of space is conveyed to all objects set upon it that ll the formerly
empty space, so that when fully identical exemplars with properties that appear
to be indistinguishable occupy different portions of space, variety is created. Just
as these physical objects set in space will never be alike, a social structure
appropriated in space receives the qualities of uniqueness and exclusivity from
the space on which it is located. This exclusivity is not a quality of space in the
essentialist sense; it is, rather, a relative scale (Simmel 2009, 54548). The
nation state, as he sees it, is an example of a social formation that can only be
realized in its complete sociological form by exclusively lling the spatial realm;
by contrast, supra-spatial structures, such as the Catholic Church, have no
relationship to one set space even though they reach out to every area.
Simmel offers us a concrete analytical tool that enables us to relatively distin-
guish between various sociospatial formations in the contemporary global
milieu through the dosage of exclusivity in space these forms convey.
Put differently, if the unbundling of sovereignty means that sovereignty
splits up into various constituent elements, while the relations between power
and space are recongured within this process (Elkins 1995; Hudson 2000,
275), then such unbundled forms of sovereignty can be placed along this
continuum of exclusivity and compared to each other. These include, for
example, the novel sociospatial organization of global city clusters and city-
regions in late capitalist societies (Sassen 2002; Scott 2002), as well as the
evolution of cosmopolitan sovereignty in unconventional spatial settings such
as the high seas and outer space, where symbolic power relations, new modes
of governance and notions of postnational sovereignty emerge and prosper
(Stuart 2009, 89).
For a differing approach, of Simmel as a postmodernizedthinker, see Weinstein and
Weinstein (1993).
Notwithstanding the city-state of the Vatican.
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This type of analysis is most compatible with the more recent attempt
within OS studies in IR (Kinnvall 2004; Browning 2015; Steele 2017) to
grasp the hyper-modern, hybrid mode of existence of late modernity, often
referred to as a crystallization of the transnational moment (Clifford 1994;
Appadurai 1996; Tölölyan 1996), in which sovereign space is eroding while
new forms of global spaces are on the rise (Ruggie 1993; Manners 2002,
140; Steele 2008, 2022; Browning and Joenniemi 2013, 50407). Adopting
Simmels scale of exclusivity in space thus allows us to place the nation state
next to rather than above or below unbundled forms of sovereignty
typical of late modernity, and trace the exclusivity they convey in particular
elds (economic, political, and cultural) and in differing social and historical
contexts. In this way, we approach the processes of continuous bundling and
unbundling of sovereignty in late modernity in a holistic manner, as part of a
uxual process of becoming(Kinnvall and Lindén 2010).
This enables us to further look at an inseparable feature of this process
the growing mobility of individuals and groups across, through, and beyond
national spaces that has intensied in recent decades as national exclusivist
forms of spatiality and power have partially eroded (Hudson 2000, 27273;
Kinnvall 2004, 744; Aradau, Huysmans, and Squire 2010, 3). It is here that
Simmels approach allows us to explore the effects of this increased mobility
typical of late modernity on the ontological (in)security of the agents
(Huysmans 1998; Innes 2010). It does so by pointing to a second sociospatial
quality mobility, namely the movement of individuals and groups in and
across space. This is complemented by a further foundational quality of
space its containment of social formations that settle within it (Simmel
2009, 55665, 587605). While society dynamically evolves through
mobility, or wandering, Simmel (2009, 587600) argues that this change of
place also carries great dangers, putting the spatial constraints of peoples
social existence into constant ux. This conception is hence directly applic-
able to the realities of the current age of migration(Castles, De Haas, and
Miller 2014), which encapsulates a compressed sense of time and space,
together with an existential experience of dislocation, anxiety, and uncer-
tainty for the agents (Kinnvall 2004, 742). Simmel (2009, 58993) saw such
perpetual nomadism such as the historical migration of masses of peoples
to, from, and within Europe, China, Persia, India, and Africa as a proto-
typical experience in which wandering becomes the fundamental substance
of life and uncertainty the dening force of the self, with the lack of a spatial
reference point to ground the individual experience.
Simmel (1997 [1911], 226) further develops this conception of uncertainty as both a
temporal and spatial mode of existence in his illuminating short essay The Adventure.
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Joining his scale of exclusivity, these complementary scales of mobility/
containment in space thus open up the possibility to evaluate the effect of
the degree to which a social group is xed within a given space on the
subjective and lived experience of the agents, migrants and receiving
societies alike. We can thus utilize them to approach migration, border
crossing, and territorial passages as grounded in space. This is not in the
essentialist, decontextualized manner that Agnew points to in his critique,
but rather on a relative scale that ranges from complete xedness of the
group members in space to their complete freedom from it, shaping the
practical experiences of the agents of migration under the structural
conditions of late modernity (Giddens 1991, 18485).
The relevance of these sociospatial scales to the study of OS in migration
crystallizes further in Simmels analysis of the social form of the stranger.
The stranger is placed in the middle of this spectrum since he is the
potential wanderer’–he is both xed within a particular spatial group, but
has also not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going(Simmel
1950, 402).
In their earlier foundational studies, Huysmans (1998) and
Kinnvall (2004) depicted the stranger as an insider/outsider, who threa-
tens the very foundation of the group since, as Huysmans (1998, 241)
articulated, he challenges the modern possibility of the activity of ordering
itself. The receiving society responds to this existential threat, as Kinnvall
(2004, 74455) suggests, by orderingthe stranger both structurally’–
such as in the efforts to construct immigrants as fakeasylum-seekers
(efforts which became highly evident, e.g. in the 2015 European refugee
crisis) and psychologically, by turning the stranger into an enemy.
Based on Kristevas neo-Lacanian conceptions of the self and the
unconscious, among other sources, Kinnvall (2004, 75355) sees the deep
basis of demonizing the other, and thus of xenophobia, racism, and the
marginalization of others, as originating from the foreigner within
ourselves, while those shadow-type aspects that the self experiences as
dangerous and unpleasant are further projected onto the other. This
qualies the turning of the strangers outside us into enemies, eventually
stripping them from their human qualities and reducing them to essentia-
lized bodies in an attempt to securitize subjectivity in times of
Simmel uses the social form of the stranger not only to discuss mobilitybut also posi-
tioning, in respect to the ways by which the dosage of distance and nearness between individuals
and collectives affects their subjective experience and behavior.
Simmel (1950, 40708) points to a similar process regarding the medieval Jew, who due to
his strangeness of originwas conceived by others only through his social position as a Jew,
rather than as an individual whole with various human traits.
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Relying on Huysmans and Kinnvall, more recent studies in the eld of OS
and migration develop these notions further, demonstrating how discourses
of belonging and otherness, manipulated by various social and political
agents, construct migrants and ethnic minorities as a threat to the state
while securitizing state identity (Innes 2010; Roe 2006; Croft 2012;
Rumelili 2015). Nonetheless, the OS literature on migration still requires a
clear engagement with the positioning of these processes in space. It is here
that Simmel (1950, 40204) adds to this eld by articulating in spatial
terms why and how the stranger poses such an existential threat to society.
In this respect, as opposed to the manner in which Simmels stranger is
often utilized, lending an illustration of estrangement together with the
positive meaning of being out of place, I suggest we understand it as but an
example of his broader spatial sociology.
In Simmels eyes, the stranger is
perceived as a threat to society precisely because of his unique spatial
position as a potential wanderer. The stranger is by nature no owner of
soil, not only in the physical but also in the gurative sense, since he is not
the owner of a life substance which is xedin space; this is why the
stranger is not radically committed to the peculiar tendencies of the
group. This lack of complete xity in space makes the stranger peculiar,
different, and threatening. We might experience the stranger as close to us,
insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of a
national, social or generally human nature, but the stranger is never-
theless always potentially far from us. It is thus the elusive quality of
unxity in space that makes the stranger an existential threat to the self.
From here the road to classifying strangers as an inner enemy
(Simmel 1950, 402) by dehumanizing them is short, portraying them, as
Kinnvall argues, as holding only a limited number of cultural traits
(Kinnvall 2004, 75455).
In sum, Simmels analysis of the stranger serves as one particularly
powerful example of his broader conception of mobility in space as a
relative scale. This deepens our understanding not only of the social and
psychological, but also of the spatial basis for securitizing subjectivityin
face of the other in times of extreme uncertainty. Together with Simmels
scale of exclusivity, which serves to explore the structural context of
changing notions of sovereignty in late modernity, these complementary
scales of mobility/containment in space allow us to look at the effects of the
spatial settings of late modernity on the existential anxiety of receiving
societies and immigrant and diasporic communities alike, ranging from
It is not accidental that the Excurses on the Stranger is merely a note within Simmels
lengthy discussion of mobility in space, in his ninth chapter of Soziologie on space (Simmel 2009,
587, 601).
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modern nomadic wandering bandssuch as the Romani people in Europe
and America or the Bedouin of the Negev region in Israel, to more xed-in-
space diasporic communities such as the Turkish and Syrian diasporas in
Germany; the Chinese and Korean diasporas in the United States; the
Indian and Pakistani diasporas in the United Kingdom and Canada;
the Lebanese diaspora in Latin America, the United States, and Europe; and
the Palestinian diaspora in Western and Arab countries.
Rethinking empty spaces in IR
Simmels sociospatial ideal types are also of direct practical relevance to the
study of conict and boundaries in IR. Scholars of international politics
have already acknowledged that Simmel offers a well-developed sociology
of conict (Wendt 1995, 76; Neumann 1996, 147), which he con-
ceptualizes as a dialectical phenomenon consisting of a unity between
harmonious and disharmonious elements, and in which he emphasizes not
only the destructive forces but also the positive potential of conict to
generate social change and innovation in and among societies (Simmel
1904). What we are less aware of is the close connection between Simmels
sociology of conict and his sociology of space, which exists primarily in
the Simmelian conception of the social boundary. One of the most domi-
nant themes within Simmels sociology of conict is the signicance of the
social boundary as a powerful force that separates, connects, and creates
social and political realities on the ground (Simmel 1994; see also Simmel
2009, 54855). This is exactly the place where Simmels sociology of
conict meets his sociology of space.
Simmels account of the social boundary begins with his conception of
another foundational quality of space its divisibility. Space is dividable
into portions, or units, surrounded by boundaries. The unity of the group
likewise expresses and bearsthe space it lls, and the boundaries of this
unit serve as its frame, holding meaning for the social group similar to the
relationship of a frame to an artwork. Beyond its metaphoric value, the
divisibility of space also refers directly to the role of borders in international
politics. The consciousness of being inside political borders is especially
vivid in Simmels eyes, since sociological and political borders, as opposed
to natural arbitrary boundaries like mountains and rivers, originate
purposefully from within the social association. Focusing on the tensions
created between the frameand its content, he argues that when the
border/frame is too narrow, unable to constrain the social energies exerted
outward by the people residing within it, either inner conict or territorial
expansion may occur. The political territorial border, as an institutiona-
lized example of a social boundary, thus signies for Simmel both defense
A Simmelian approach to space in world politics 239
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and offense in the relationship between neighbors, and is perceived as a
dynamic site where dislocations,expansions,migrations, and mergers
are contemplated (Simmel 2009, 54855).
Indeed, abundant contemporary works theorize what occurs at the
territorial margins of modern polities. These include insightful contribu-
tions such as Jackson and Nexons (1999) approach to the state as an
ongoing relational project; Anne Nortons (1988) notion of liminal
identities; Peter Sahlinss (1989) historicalrelational approach to frontiers;
as well as the most recent works in Critical Border Studies, which rely on
theorists like Deleuze and Agamben to emphasize performance, practice,
techniques, and border-workinstead of the traditional line in the sand
To this contemporary discourse on borders and boundaries Simmel adds
one aspect of particular signicance to IR by focusing on the close con-
nections that exist between boundaries, conict, and empty spaces. This
type of engagement with empty space (Simmel 2009, 61520) holds pro-
mise for a future exploration of uncharted water, shifting our gaze to a type
of spatial formation that is largely unnoticed by scholars of international
politics. Space is conventionally conceived as an inhabited, full, portion of
land one that includes either population, physical objects, or natural
resources while empty space is popularly viewed as a lack of these. But
although empty space may be vacant or null in the physical sense, such as in
our popular notions of outer space or of the high seas,
Simmels most
illuminating insight in this respect is that a variety of empty spaces exist
within the social world, and that different types of emptinessare mani-
fested in diverse kinds of spatial relations among social groups.
For example, while empty space can be a no mans land, it can also be
empty of ownership when it is unclear to whom it belongs. Similar to an
emotional area that two people are afraid to touch upon by tacit agreement,
this type of empty space, potentially belonging to two or more parties at
once, holds the possibility that one side can take hold of it and unleash
conict between the two groups. Consistent in his dialectical approach,
however, Simmel argues that while the forceful seizure of such a region by
one party may at rst cause shock and enmity, it also holds great potential,
since the encroachment of the avoided region may eventually lead to its
development in novel directions that were previously unthinkable. It can
This refers to the traditional image of the border as the razor-edge of the nation state,
where mutually recognized sovereignties meetbut do not overlap(Parker and Vaughan-
Williams 2012, 72832; Salter 2012, 737).
Although far from being empty, outer space and the high seas are both infused with power
politics and novel modes of governance. See Stuart (2009), Prescott (2015, 13657).
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evolve, for example, into a space that not only separates but also connects
peoples in surprising ways and combinations (Simmel 2009, 61719).
One particular type of empty space to which we could apply this
Simmelian lens in IR, and which would serve as a key to analyzing recent
strategic dynamics in conict areas such as the Middle East, are areas that
are empty of effective sovereign governmental authority. Such areas are
commonly under dispute between two or more conicting rival factions,
serving as spaces in which various local, international, and transnational
actors further their own parochial interests. As Simmel suggests, such
encounters may lead to violent clashes, but they might also spur surprising
new strategic and political congurations.
A salient example is the South Lebanese border zone between Lebanon
and Israel. Placed far from the Lebanese government in Beirut,
this space
served over the years as a playgroundfor international actors (the United
States and the Soviet Union), regional powers (Israel, Iran, and Syria), and
foreign and local agents (the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the
South Lebanese Army (SLA), Amal, and Hizbulla) taking advantage of the
governmental power vacuum in the area (Hamizrachi 1988). Although
since the late 1960s it served as the base for PLO insurgencies on Israels
Northern towns and villages (in what was later labeled by Israel as
Fatahland), this border area has transformed since the mid-1970s into
Israels self-proclaimed security zone, where semi-legal activities of local
agents were accompanied by the development of a unique, unexpected
syncretic IsraeliLebanese identity, expressed in various shared practices as
part of the broader patronclient relations between Israel and the SLA.
Thus, when we focus our attention on such spaces in the so-called
periphery of states it becomes evident that they are by no means peripheral.
Rather, they serve as a key for deciphering broader strategic dynamics
stemming from the colonial heritage of many states with underdetermined
political borders in developing areas. It is therefore not surprising that
consistent ndings in the study of territory and intrastate war clearly show
that the majority of secessionist movements emerge in such regions, making
a separatist war more likely to take place in these areas far from the seat of
state power (Fuhrmann and Tir 2009; Toft 2014, 191). These spaces should
For a similar, though not identical, approach to such spaces, see Van Genneps (1909, 18)
discussion on the neutral zone in between societies.
Farin relative, not absolute terms.
The SLA was a local militia composed of Christian (mainly Maronite) ex-ofcers in the
Lebanese army, together with members of the Shii, Druze, and Sunni communities of the towns
and villages along the IsraeliLebanese border (Sela 2007).
A Simmelian approach to space in world politics 241
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hence be seen as essential sites for unpacking the broader dynamics of the
violent ongoing conicts in Syria, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine.
The area near the Northern IraqiTurkish border, also known as the
independent zone of Iraqi Kurdistan, further exemplies this point. One of
four areas considered by the Kurds to beparts of Kurdistan (together with the
regions in Northern Iran and Syria, and in Southern Turkey), this area
attracted regional powers like Israel, Turkey, and Iran, as well as global
powers such as the United States, and in this sense resembles South
Lebanon. Historically composed of Muslim Kurds and an array of
other minorities (Turkmens, Assyrian Christians, Arabs, Armenians, and
Yezidis), these actors all struggle to preserve their ethnic boundaries in face of
Kurdish dominance a dominance that received formal recognition in 2003
with the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (Elden 2008,
14776). While the Kurds are entangled in their own ongoing internal riv-
alries, and are partially challenged in recent years by a new nonstate actor
the Islamic State Kurdish dominance in this area nonetheless prevails under
the strategic umbrella of the United States, and the Kurds persistently
advance their separationist aspirations from the far-off Federal Iraqi gov-
ernment through military and political practices of self-governance (Stans-
eld 2014). This is accompanied by their continuous symbolic boundary
work(Simmel 2009, 551)
vis-à-vis the various state and nonstate actors
active in this area, negotiating the demarcation and remarcation of their
ethnonational boundaries vs. these signicant othersin a much more
sophisticated and multilayered way than popularly assumed (Natali 2005).
These contested spaces at the edges of states, often referred to as zones of
statelessnessor modern Sherwood Forests(Barak and Cohen 2013,
1215), are hence characterized by extreme ethnic tension together with a
perceived void of sovereign statist power, forcefully attracting local Robin
hoodsand national and transnational actors. Joining the critical literature
on borderlands and bordering practices (Billé, Delaplace, and Humphrey
2012, 118; Parker and Vaughan-Williams 2012), Simmelian sociology
invites us to rearticulate our notion of these spaces in IR not as xed unitary
essences, but rather as rich and dynamic entities in which diverse interests,
loyalties, norms, and practices transform and crystalize.
Approaching empty spaces from this point of view thus further comple-
ments the growing body of research on governmentality in international
politics (Dean 2010). By focusing on the interplay among state institutional
settings, local border techniques, and transnational ows of material goods
(such as drug and arms trafcking) within and across these spaces, scholars
For the contemporary notion of boundary work, see Lamont and Molnár (2002).
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can apply this Foucauldian concept in the context of the daily workingsof
state power in liminal areas supposedly empty of state central control.
Similar to previous accounts of border outposts and airports (Cairo 2004;
Salter 2007), looking at such empty spaces in IR as sites of governmentality
at work broadens our understanding of these heterotopian spaces where the
state is formally absent but at the same time very much present.
Simmels notion of empty space as a spectrum of lively socio-political con-
structs that constantly transform and reinvent themselves via social interaction
couldalsoserveasarst step toward establishing a case-sensitive typology of
the various social and political conditions in which these spaces thrive and
function. These include vacant or deserted spaces in the physical sense, but also
distant border areas, where semi-legal and noninstitutionalized practices
prosper far from the states inspective gaze. Relevant examples are the para-
digmatic case of the USMexican border area (La Frontera) (Alvarez 1995), as
well as spaces within European conict zones (e.g. the former Yugoslavia) and
distant borderlands in the margins of large states and former empires (e.g. the
border area in North Asia, where the territories of China, Russia, and
Mongolia meet) (Billé, Delaplace, and Humphrey 2012). Such a broader
typology of empty spaces may enable us to differentiate between these socio-
spatial congurations in a more nuanced manner, looking at diverse cases in
varied historical periods and geographical locations, not only in Europe and
the United States but also in the developing spaces of the global south.
Toward a Simmelian research agenda for the study of space in
world politics
This article highlights the novelty and practical utility of Simmels sociology of
space for IR. Simmel offers scholars of the international realm an invitation to
break our previous conceptions of sociospatial relations into a set of tangible
questions and concrete scales, enabling us to unpack some of the spatial black
boxesthat exist in our studies. Simmels unique relational approach based
on two intersecting analytical axes (the spatio-temporal axis and the physical-
symbolic axis) and encapsulated in his spatial scales allows us to look at
novel unbundled congurations of space and power in late modernity through
the dosage of the exclusivity in space they convey, and his complementing
scales of mobility/containment in space serve to unravel the increased move-
ment of individuals and groups across national spaces in an age in which,
following Simmel (1950, 406), one could argue that we are all, to a certain
extent, strangers. Simmels scales thus ground the process of the securitization
of subjectivity, which stands at the core of the concept of OS, not only in the
psychological and sociological processes that turn the stranger into an enemy,
but also in the spatial circumstances in which this process is realized.
A Simmelian approach to space in world politics 243
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As evident in the 2015 European refugee crisis, the growing inux of
asylum-seekers and other migrants into Western countries and the ensuing
adoption of exclusivist anti-migration policies by many of these countries
have far-reaching effects on both the physical security and the OS of
receiving societies and migrants alike. President Trumps recent anti-
migration policies in the United States and the strong global resistance they
have elicited further accentuate the closely knit relations existing between
mobility and security, and mark this issue as a crucial one on the global
agenda for the years to come. In these volatile circumstances, it seems that
Simmels social form of the stranger, when understood as an example of his
broader scale of mobility in space, becomes more relevant than ever for
tracking the sociospatial mechanisms that facilitate uncertainty and anxiety
for the agents in late modernity (Steele 2017, 2).
Complementing this focus on the supposedly marginal stranger, Simmels
innovative notion of emptynot as the opposite of fullbut as a spectrum
of lively sociospatial constructs shifts our attention to what occurs at the
so-called margins of modern polities from a novel perspective. Applying
Simmels approach to such contested spaces seemingly empty of statist
conventional power highlights the fact that they are in effect a microcosm of
larger strategic dynamics typical of conict zones in postcolonial areas like
the Middle East, in which processes of deconstruction and reconstruction of
boundaries between self and other continuously challenge traditional statist
bundlednotions of sovereignty and power.
While I have applied Simmels spatial typologies in two areas of research,
they also hold considerable promise for future studies in IR. One such promise
lies in Simmels (2009, 61115) notion of xed spatial structures, which opens
the door for a spatial analysis of international regimes. Simmelsmostuseful
insight in this respect is that social associations that are housed (i.e. grounded
in particular physical settings) manifest a common sociological quality, which
differentiates them from other free-oating associations existing only in
common convictions in the consciousness of their members (e.g. friendships,
groups temporarily working together, or epistemic communities). Hence, the
physical church, which serves as the union of all like-minded believers or, for
that matter, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the EU head-
quarters in Brussels, serve not only as property with economic value and legal
standing, but also as the location of the spatial, visible crystallization of the
communitys social energy and solidarity. They are the meeting point of a great
number of threads anchored in an array of peripheral points, dynamically
changing from stability to uctuation and vice versa (Simmel 2009, 61012).
Applying this insight to the future study of international regimes (see Krasner
1983; Keohane 1989; Levy, Young, and Zürn 1995; Koremenos, Lipson, and
Snidal 2001) means that it is not only the degree of institutionalization in itself
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that matters, as is often argued in the regime literature, but also its
manifestation in space, and that the relative degree to which these institutions
are physically and symbolically anchored in space is a signicant explaining
variable inuencing their overall performance and effectivity.
Finally, this article joins other recent studies (see Kopstein 2007; Albert,
Buzan, and Zürn 2013) in demonstrating that notwithstanding the major
contribution of later critical thinkers like Derrida and Baudrillard to IR,
classical sociologys rich holistic grasp of all aspects of the human experi-
ence offers a powerful and relevant prism for analyzing contemporary
international phenomena. I have focused on Simmel, but other sociological
founding fathers may also provide profound insights if systematically
developed along this vein, particularly Durkheims (2013, 184) concept of
social morphology, which approaches the number of social units in a given
space and their dynamic densityas crucial factors for understanding social
processes. Thus, the current article should be seen as one step within the
larger unfolding and much needed effort to unpack the relations between
space and social interaction in world politics from not only a philoso-
phical but also a sociological perspective, and classical sociological theory
carries great promise for further inquiry into this theme.
The author wishes to express her deep gratitude to the Martin Buber Society
of Fellows in the Humanities and Social Sciences (MBSF) at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem for their ongoing support and generous funding. For
their invaluable support and thoughtful comments the author wishes to thank
Shai Lederman, Ruth HaCohen, David Kertai, Nitzan Rothem and Limor
Meoded Danon. For their thoughtful and constructive comments the author
further wishes to thank the editors of IT and the anonymous peer reviewers
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... However, scholars such as Kurt H. Wolff, Donald N. Levine, David Frisby and Lawrence Scaff have paved the way for a general acknowledgement of Simmel's oeuvre. It is certainly due to their work that recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in Simmel's theory of space, and that a growing number of scholars acknowledge the 22 In contrast to the sea, which is experienced as life itself (Simmel, 2007(Simmel, /1911 value of his approach for the interpretation of spatial relations (Fu, 2022;Gazit, 2018;Shields, 2017, pp. 76-83). ...
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Among the founders of sociology, it was Georg Simmel who provided the most thorough analysis and theory of space. This paper aims to reconstruct Simmel’s spatial theory and his observations of spatial relations. The German sociologist engaged with spatiality in a threefold way. First, he tried to provide a systematic social theory of space; second, analyzing spatial relations was important for his diagnosis of modernity; third, he dealt with the subjective constitutions of space in his shorter, essayistic writings. This paper argues that the importance of the third strand for a sociological understanding of space has seldom been recognized in sociology. In addition, it also shows that despite the diversity in perspectives, there is an underlying coherence to Simmel’s theory of space. As a result, it becomes evident that Simmel was not only ground-breaking in conceptualizing space from a sociological point of view, but that his theory of space continues to be inspirational and relevant to this day for interpreting the entanglement of social and spatial relations.
... 35 These conceptual and theoretical engagements then fed into more detailed, issue-oriented work in different thematic fields, although this has not added up to a coherent research programme thus far. 36 Strategic Studies and other strands of 'traditional' international security studies have included spatial concepts from classical geopolitics like the Eurasian 'Heartland' and 'Rimland' , or notions of 'shatterbelts' and 'spheres of influence' into their theorizing. 37 the constructed nature of their object. ...
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Space matters for global politics but the treatment thereof in International Relations (IR) has been uneven. There is broad interest in spatial aspects across many research communities but only a nascent theoretical discussion and little cross-field communication. This article argues for a fuller engagement of IR scholars with sociospatial concepts and proposes a spatial approach to global politics based on four essential dimensions: a spatial ontology, the constructedness of space, a scalar perspective, and the interaction of materiality and ideas. As one possible way of integrating these aspects into a more specific concept, the article elaborates a framework of spatial practices and uses the example of Arctic Security research to illustrate the upsides of such a spatial approach for IR research.
... dynamic webs of political and symbolic relations evolving within, around and in relation to topographical physical settings and terrestrial landscapes. 2 Yet the interplay of spatial configurations and International Relations theory has not been thoroughly mapped. What spatial domains have International Relations theorists considered important, and why? ...
This article examines the evolution of international thought through the notion of ‘political space’. It focuses on two important domains of international politics, the nation-state and the global, to reflect on spatial categories in the discipline of International Relations (IR). Since its inception, the concept of the nation-state has dominated mainstream IR theory. Yet an investigation of how international order has been theorized over IR’s first century shows that this era has also been defined by globalist visions of political order. Nowadays, globalization is sometimes seen as the apex of the historical interplay of particularity and universality. The progression towards global political and economic order, however, is today undermined by the resurgence of state-centric political nationalism which seeks to challenge the legitimacy of the global political space. By examining how past international thinkers including Alfred Zimmern, Barbara Ward, Hans Morgenthau, E. H. Carr and John Herz, imagined and interpreted the relations of space and politics in the national and global spheres, this article suggests that spatial thinking offers an insightful approach for theorizing international relations. The article argues that the global and national spaces attain their political meanings through divisions as well as interactions and connections. The focus on divisions, exemplified in the writings of Barbara Ward, helps to make sense of the modus operandi of power in the national and global political spaces by investigating differences, tensions and instability.
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is a clear demonstration of how the conduct of a war can highlight what purpose(s) the war is supposed to serve. In this chapter, President Vladimir Putin’s putative objectives in the Ukraine war are connected to the war-sovereignty nexus through the concept of geopolitical order, arguing that war fulfills different objectives because different combinations of sovereignty regimes are operative under different geopolitical orders. Attention then turns to the discourse of sovereignty adopted by Putin and how it reflects a certain set of contradictory understandings about sovereignty implicit in the conduct of the war.KeywordsGeopolitical ordersPutinRussiaRussian invasion of UkraineSovereigntySovereignty regimesTerritorial trap
The idea of a sovereign territorial order dominates representations of space in International Relations through ubiquitous dichotomies such as international/domestic, inside/outside, and citizen/foreigner. Yet, phenomena of forced displacement question the perceptiveness of these binaries justifying an enquiry into the possibility of different accounts of the type of space that displacement constitutes. This essay revisits critically the Foucauldian concept of heterotopic space and proposes its redefinition. It then uses the revised concept for the reconstruction of the Syrian displacement crisis in Jordan. The objective is to show the validity of heterotopic space as a concept to represent the site that states, refugees, and international organisations constitute through their interactions in displacement response. The argument is that interpreting displacement as heterotopic space allows for a more credible representation of this phenomenon that supplants the assumptions of sovereign territoriality. This leads to an interpretation of displacement as an ‘other-space’ in its own capacity, thus offering an account that differs from displacement as liminality or as an exception to the territorial order.
What does it mean for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) building to be designed through modernist architecture principles on land acquired through settler colonialism? In 1947, construction began on the United Nations Headquarters (UNHQ) in Manhattan, a name derived from Manna-hata, a site within Lenapehoking, the homeland of Indigenous Lenape peoples violently displaced by waves of Dutch, British, and American settlers starting in the 17th century. This paper analyzes the structural dynamics that is in the literal foundations of the United Nations Headquarters, the post-World War II (WWII) worldmaking project intended to safeguard international order. By marshaling the history of Lenapehoking and analyzing the design principles informing the UNGA building, this paper narrows the claim that the post-WWII worldmaking project was contingent upon settler colonialism. Through a capacious reading of settler colonial theory, architectural history, and International Relations (IR), this paper aims to open up conversations on the ongoing structural and spatial dynamics embedded in the foundations of the UNGA building that are constitutive of the post-WWII international order.
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This interdisciplinary and thoroughly theoretical dissertation takes lessons from relational sociology, public administration, and international relations and develops an approach to study and govern wicked problems. The starting point is the inability of most current approaches to study and govern wicked problems adequately. This is particularly important in a world that experiences an increased frequency of global crises (e.g., economic crisis, climate crisis), which are without a doubt wicked problems. Processual-relationalism’s ontological assumption place primacy on the role of relations, which constitute entities and elements of the social world. It further views relations as continuously unfolding processes. This ‘hook-up’ to the world seems to be particularly well-suited to study wicked problems which from a processual-relationalist perspective are considered as ‘un-owned processes’ embedded in interdependent and highly complex situations. Methodologically, this leads to the need to focus on a constitutive type of inquiry to enable the production of useful results and, perhaps more importantly, requires the researcher to choose trans-actions as the unit of analysis instead of the more intuitive emphasis on elements or entities. In that context, the processual-relational research question, ‘What makes the Coronavirus Crisis wicked?” is sketched out. From there, the dissertation moves on to explore possible methodological approaches that derive from processual relationalism. Most prominently, it features the use of a cognitive frames-based methodology to study wicked problems. Here, the frames are neither considered structures nor entities but continuously unfolding patterns of practices (trans-actions). As an example, the German and the EU’s migration policies are illuminated. After showing that a processual-relational approach is useful for studying wicked problems, its ability to govern wicked problems is explored. The main lesson here is that self-active and inter-active modes of governance – which are most prevalent - cannot govern wicked issues. Instead, a trans-active type of governance based on processual-relational ontological assumptions is introduced. This mode of governance views failure as the only likely outcome and recommends moving governance as an activity that deploys certain tools to solve problems to a place where the ethos of Failure-Governance manages the continuous engagement with wicked problems. The usefulness of this mode of governance is assessed by analysing the failures to govern the Climate Crisis, and the thesis maps out how Failure Governance would engage with it instead. This way, the dissertation advances the ontological and methodological debate of relational sociology by clearly linking wicked problems with processual relationalism and introducing methodological lessons from International Relations to the discipline. The dissertation further introduces the usefulness of this marriage to the discipline of public administration, where the notion of Failure Governance supports dealing with more frequently appearing global crises.
Why is today's world map filled with uniform states separated by linear boundaries? The answer to this question is central to our understanding of international politics, but the question is at the same time much more complex - and more revealing - than we might first think. This book examines the important but overlooked role played by cartography itself in the development of modern states. Drawing upon evidence from the history of cartography, peace treaties and political practices, the book reveals that early modern mapping dramatically altered key ideas and practices among both rulers and subjects, leading to the implementation of linear boundaries between states and centralized territorial rule within them. In his analysis of early modern innovations in the creation, distribution and use of maps, Branch explains how the relationship between mapping and the development of modern territories shapes our understanding of international politics today.